Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell says an incident where he called police for assistance raises legitimate questions about how police should conduct investigations that involve police board members.
On Wednesday, Atwell broke his silence to clarify media reports that stated he was party to a police-involved dispute at a private Saanich residence in early December, just days after being sworn in as mayor.
“It really was a small incident that was blown out of proportion by a newspaper article because it made some suggestions that aren’t true,” Atwell said. “And how this leaked out, I don’t know.”
Atwell, who chairs the Saanich police board, was referring to an article published Tuesday in the Times Colonist that used unnamed sources to reference an incident at the home of an Atwell campaign supporter and her fiancé. Atwell confirmed he was at the home on Dec. 11, but said other facts of the story were wrong.
“The description of what happened there, which was I was caught with somebody’s fiancé late at night and the implication we were caught doing something inappropriate which then turned into a fight – that didn’t happen,” he said.
Atwell describes a much different scene at the residence, where he was invited in by both his friend and the woman’s partner around 8 p.m. An argument then ensued and Atwell tried to leave. Instead, he was pushed by the fiancé and felt unsafe, he said.
“At that point, I called 911 for everyone’s safety. I wasn’t the aggressor,” he said.
When Saanich police officers arrived, Atwell then identified himself as the mayor but said he didn’t request or receive any special treatment.
“Everything was above board. I didn’t make a 911 call because I thought it would be good for me, but I decided to make a safety choice,” he said.
Atwell said he chose not to pursue charges that evening. The campaign supporter and fiancé gave statements to police and have since chosen to “go back to their private lives,” Atwell said.
“This thing has raised more questions than it has answers. But the answer about what I was doing there and what happened is all very factual and simple,” he said. “A simple call for safety has opened up a whole can of worms about whether the governance structure of the police board is appropriate. I don’t have an answer to that question.”
Atwell said he still has a right to a private life even as mayor, and questioned comments about his lack of transparency and openness on the incident until now.
“What some people have done is they’ve taken open government, transparency and accountability of the organization and they’ve poured it into my private life,” Atwell said.
“It’s not about my job, it’s about my life as a private citizen that’s now fallen under their umbrella of openness and transparency. It’s very easy to say I should have come out earlier, but it’s my private life. I think I have a right to a private life, although clearly many people disagree.”
Atwell said it would be inappropriate to bring up the incident at a council meeting and said he’s now “eager” to get back to municipal business.
“I am chair of the police board, but hopefully I’ve got some rights as a private citizen where I’m able to call police like anybody else,” he said.
Saanich police confirmed the file has since been closed and that there are no charges pending in the incident.
“If someone calls us, it’s because they need our help as a citizen,” said Saanich police Sgt. Steve Eassie, who stressed he was speaking in general terms. “That call is really not a public interest story unless there’s a specific reason to release that information for public safety or other purposes. The circumstances of the file will dictate whether there’s an independent review on any of our calls.”
In cases involving public officials, police can request a third party review of the file, but no review has been requested in a case involving Atwell.